WASHINGTON. — Whenever someone suggests U.S. military intervention in a dreadful conflict like the one in Bosnia, cries go up that we are likely to get bogged down in ''a Vietnam-type quagmire.''
Less dramatic skeptics say, ''It's easy to go in, but how and when do we get out?''
We are seeing anew the wisdom of the skeptics in the tragic unfolding of events in Somalia, where the U.S. intervened unilaterally last December for the sick and hungry people of that land. The road in was paved with welcome garlands; the path out is blocked by dead bodies and the fury of national pride.
Four U.S. soldiers died in the Somalian capital, Mogadishu, when their Humvee vehicle was demolished, bringing to eight the number of Americans who have died in this ''mercy mission.''
The quick, angry assumption is that someone did it at the behest of Mohammed Farah Aidid, the now-notorious Somali ''warlord'' who is a fugitive from U.N. and U.S. forces.
The Somalia tragedy shows again that we sink deep into quagmires because American presidents can't or won't admit to error with regard to military interventions.
By February 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson was aware that the U.S. military role in Vietnam was becoming his nightmare. But when the secretly provoked Viet Cong raided a base at Pleiku, killing 8 Americans and wounding 62, Johnson opted for the macho response of openly bombing North Vietnam. The aftermath was disaster.
Now President Clinton vows the ''appropriate'' macho response in Somalia, which will mean maiming and killing many people who had nothing to do with blowing up the Humvee. And that will surely intensify the guerrilla warfare.
It is a pity that our president seems to think it would damage him politically to say: ''We went into Somalia on a truly humanitarian mission. We saved a lot of lives. But we erred in expanding our mandate to try to control the internal politics of Somalia by disempowering 'warlords' and disarming various groups of citizens.
''We made a serious mistake in turning over the 'pacification' of Somalia to United Nations officials who felt the world body could go beyond peace-keeping and become a peace maker.
''Our mission was never to make war on the people of Somalia. BTC They now clearly want us out, so I am withdrawing all U.S. military forces from that country, content in the knowledge that we carried out our mission of mercy as well as was possible under the circumstances.''
That kind of statement would offend only those Americans who believe that as ''the last great power,'' the U.S. can now use military might to control myriad events throughout the so-called Third World, the Middle East, the Americas and even places as far away as North Korea.
American policy is now driven in part by people with notions that, under the cloak of the United Nations, or beneath the flag of the International Red Cross, the U.S. can become the all-time great 21st-century imperialist.
But Somalia is teaching us that trying to be everyone's Florence Nightingale can be dangerous as well as costly, and that acting as everybody's policeman is truly foolhardy.
8, Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.